There is no such thing as an objective photograph
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (here) entitled “When Pictures Are Too Perfect” prompted this post. The premise of the article is that too much ‘manipulation’ (i.e. Photoshopping) is present in many of today’s images, particularly in photojournalism and photo contests. There is evidently an arbitrary standard (that no one can appear to objectively define) that posits that essentially only an image ‘straight out of the camera’ is ‘honest’ or acceptable – particularly if one is a photojournalist or is entering your image into some form of competition. Examples are given, such as Harry Fisch having a top prize from National Geographic (for the image “Preparing the Prayers at the Ganges”) taken away because he digitally removed an extraneous plastic bag from an unimportant area of the image. Steve McCurry, best known for his iconic “Afghan Girl” photo on the cover of National Geographic magazine in 1985, was accused of digital manipulation of some images shot in 1983 in Bangladesh and India.
On the whole, I find this absurd and the logic behind such attempts at defining an ‘objective photograph’ fatally flawed. From a purely scientific point of view, there is absolutely no such thing as an ‘objective’ photograph – for a host of reasons. All photographs lie, permanently and absolutely. The only distinction is by how much, and in how many areas.
The First Lie: Framing
The very nature of photography, from the earliest days until now, has at its core an essential feature: the frame. Only a certain amount of what can be seen by the photographer can be captured as an image. There are four edges to every photograph. Whether the final ‘edges’ presented to the viewer are due to the limitations of the camera/film/image sensor, or cropping during the editing process, is immaterial. The initial choice of frame is made by the photographer, in concert with the camera in use, which presents physical limitations that cannot be exceeded. The choice of frame is completely subjective: it is the eye/brain/intuition of the photographer that decides in the moment where to point the camera, what to include in the frame. Is pivoting the camera a few degrees to the left to avoid an unsightly telephone pole “unwarranted digital manipulation?” Most news editors and photo contest judges would probably not agree. But what if the same exact result is obtained by cropping the image during an editing process – already we start to see disagreement in the literature.
If Mr. Fisch had simply walked over and picked up the offending plastic bag before exposing the image, he would likely be the deserved recipient of his 1st place prize from National Geographic, but as he removed the bag during editing his photograph was disqualified. By this same logic, when Leonardo Da Vinci painted the “Mona Lisa” there is a balustrade with two columns behind her. There is perfect symmetry in the placement of Lisa Gherardini (the presumed model) between the columns, which helps frame the subject. Painting takes time, it is likely that a bird would land from time to time on the balustrade. Was Leonardo supposed to include the bird or not? Did he ‘manipulate’ the image by only including the parts of the image that were important to the composition? Would any editor or judge dare ask him today, if that was possible?
The Second Lie: The Lens
No photograph can occur without a lens. Every lens has certain irrefutable properties: focal length and maximum aperture being the most important. Each of these parameters impart a vital, and subjective, aspect to the image subsequently captured. Since the ‘lingua franca’ of focal length is the ubiquitous 35mm camera, we can generalize here: 50mm being the so-called ‘normal’ lens; 35mm is considered ‘wide angle’, 24mm ‘very wide angle’ and 10mm a ‘fisheye’. Going in the other direction, 85mm is often considered a ‘portrait’ lens (slight close-up), 105mm a medium ‘telephoto’, 200mm a ‘telephoto’ and anything beyond is for sports or space exploration. Each focal length brings more or less of the frame into focus, and inversely shortens the depth of field. Wide angle lenses tend to bring the entire field of view into sharp focus, while telephotos blur out everything except what the photographer has selected as the prime focus point.In addition, each lens type distorts the field of view noticeably: wide angle lenses tend to exaggerate the distance between foreground and background, making the closer objects in the frame look larger than they actually are, and making distant objects even smaller. Telephoto lenses have the opposite effect, foreshortening the image and ‘flattening’ the resulting picture. For example, in a long telephoto shot of a tree on a ridge backlit by the moon, both the tree and the moon can be tack sharp and apparently the moon is directly behind the tree, even though it is 239,000 miles away.
The other major ‘subjective’ quality of any lens is the aperture chosen by the photographer. Otherwise commonly known as the “f-stop” this is the ratio of the focal length of the lens divided by the diameter of the ‘entrance pupil’ (the size of the hole that the aperture diaphragm is set to on a given capture). The maximum aperture (the largest ‘hole’ that can be set by the photographer) depends on the diameter of the lens itself, in relation to the focal length. For example, with a ‘normal’ 50mm lens if the lens is 25mm in diameter then the maximum aperture is f/2 (50/25). Larger apertures (lower f-stop ratios) require larger lenses, and are correspondingly more difficult to use, heavy and expensive. One can see that an f/2 lens for a 50mm focal length is not that huge, to obtain the same f/2 ratio for a 200mm telephoto would require a lens that is at least 100mm (4in) in diameter – making such a device huge, heavy and obscenely expensive. As a quick comparison, (Nikon lenses, full frame, prime lens, priced from B&H Photo – discount photo equipment supplier) a 50mm f/2.8 lens costs $300, while the same lens in f/1.2 costs $700. A 400mm telephoto in f/5.6 would be $2,200, while an identical focal length with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 will set you back a little over $12,000.The bottom line is that the choice of lens and aperture is a controlling element of the photographer (or her pocketbook) – and has a huge effect on the image taken with that lens and setting. None of these choices can be deemed to be either ‘analog’ or ‘digital’ manipulation of the image during editing, but they have arguably a greater effect on the outcome, message, impact and tenor of the photograph than anything that can be done subsequently in the darkroom (whether chemical or digital).
The Third Lie: Shutter Speed
Every exposure is a product of two factors: Light X Time. The amount of light that strikes a negative (or digital sensor) is governed solely by the selected aperture (and possibly by any additional filters placed in front of the lens); the duration for which the light is allowed to impinge on the negative is set by the shutter speed. While the main property of setting the shutter speed is to produce the correct exposure once the aperture has been selected (to avoid either under or over-exposing the image), there is a huge secondary effect of shutter speed on any motion of either the camera or objects in the frame. Fast shutter speeds (over 1/125th of a second with a normal lens) will essentially freeze any motion, while slow shutter speeds will result in ‘shake’, ‘blur’ and other motion artifacts. While some of these can be just annoying, in the hands of a skilled photographer motion artifacts tell a story. And likewise a ‘freeze-frame’ (from a very fast shutter speed) can distort reality in the other direction, giving the observer a point of view that the human eye could never glimpse in reality. The hours-long time exposure of star trails or the suspended animation shot of a bullet about to pierce a balloon are both ‘manipulations’ of reality – but they take place as the image is formed, not in the darkroom. The subjective experience of a football distorted as the kicker’s foot impacts it – locked in time by a shutter speed of 1/2000th second – is very different to the same shot of the kicker at 1/15th second where his leg is a blurry arc against a sharp background of grass. Two entirely different stories, just from shutter speed choice.
The Fourth Lie: Film (or Sensor) Sensitivity [ISO]
As if Pinocchio’s nose hasn’t grown long enough already, we have yet another ‘distortion’ of reality that every image contains as a basic building block: that of film/sensor sensitivity. While we have discussed exposure as a product of Light Intensity X Time of Exposure, one further parameter remains. A so-called ‘correct’ exposure is one that has a balance of tonal values, and (more or less) represents the tonal values of the scene that was photographed. This means essentially that blacks, shadows, mid-tones, highlights and whites are all apparent and distinct in the resulting photograph, and the contrast values are more or less in line with that of the original scene. The sensitivity of the film (or digital sensor) is critical in this regard. Very sensitive film will allow a correct image with a lower exposure (either a smaller aperture, faster shutter speed, or both), while a ‘slow’ [insensitive] film will require the opposite.A corollary to film sensitivity is grain (in film) or noise (in digital sensors). If you desire a fine-grained, super sharp negative, then you must use a slow film. If you need a fast film that can produce an acceptable image in low light without a flash, say for photojournalism or surveillance work, then you must use a fast film and accept grain the size of rice in some cases… Life is all about compromise. Again, the final outcome is subjective, and totally within the control of the accomplished photographer, but this exists completely outside the darkroom (or Photoshop). Two identical scenes shot with widely disparate ISO films (or sensor settings) will give very different results. A slow ISO will produce a very sharp, super-realistic image; while a very fast ISO will be grainy, somewhat fuzzy and can tend towards surrealism if pushed to an extreme. [technical note: the arithmetic portion of the ISO rating is the same as the older ASA rating scale, I use the current nomenclature]
Editing: White Lies, Black Lies, Dutone and Technicolor…
In my personal work as a streetphotographer (my gallery is here) I tell ‘white lies’ all the time in editorial. By that I mean the small adjustments to focus, color balance, contrast, highlight and shadow balance, etc. This is a highly personal and subjective experience. I learned from master photographers (including Ansel Adams), books and much trial and even more error… to pre-visualize my shots, and mentally place the components of the image on the Zone Scale as accurately as possible with the equipment and lighting on hand. This process was most helpful when in university with no money – every shot cost, both in film and developing ingredients. I would often choose between beer and film.. film always won… fewer friends, more images.. not quite sure about that choice but I was fascinated with imagery. While pre-visualization is, I feel, an important magic and can result in the difference between an ok image and a great one – it’s not an easy process to follow in candid streetphotography, where the recognition of a potential shot and the chance to grab it is often 1-2 seconds.
This results, quite frequently, with things in the image not being where I imagined them in terms of composition, lighting, color balance, etc. So enter my ‘white lies’. I used to accomplish this in the darkroom with push/pull of developing, and significant tweaking during printing (burning, dodging, different choice of contrast printing papers, etc.). Now I use Photoshop (I’m not particularly an Adobe disciple, but I started with this program in 1989 with version 0.87 (known as part of Barneyscan, on my Mac Classic) and we’ve kind of grown up together… I just haven’t bothered to learn another program. It does what I need, I’m sure that I only know about 20% of its current capabilities, but that’s enough for my requirements.
The other extreme that can be accomplished by Photoshop experts (and I use the term generically here) are the ‘black lies’. This is where one puts Oprah’s head on someone else’s body, performs ‘digital liposuction’ to the extent that Lena Dunham and Adele both scream “enough!”, and many celebrities find their faces applied to actors and scenes (typically in North Hollywood) where they have never been, nor would want to… There’s actually a great novel by the late Michael Crichton [Rising Sun, 1992] that contains a detailed subplot about digital photomanipulation of video imagery. At that time, it took a supercomputer to accomplish the detailed and sophisticated retouching of long video sequences – today tools such as Photoshop and After Effects could accomplish this on a desktop workstation in a matter of hours.A technique I frequently use is Duotone – and even here I am being technically inaccurate. What I mean by this is separating the object of interest from the background by masking the subject and turning the rest of the image into black and white. The juxtaposition of a color subject against a monochrome background helps isolate and focus the viewer’s attention on the subject. Frequently in streetphotography the opportunity to place the subject against a non-intrusive background doesn’t exist, so this technique is quite effective in ‘turning down’ the importance of the often busy and distracting surrounds. [Technically the term duotone is used for printing the entire image in gradations of only two colors]. Is this ‘manipulation’? Yes. Does it materially detract from, or alter the intent of, the original image that I pre-visualized in my head? No. I firmly stand behind this point of view, that all photographs “lie” to one extent or another, and any tool that the photographer has at his or her hand to generate a final image that is in accordance with the original intent is fair game. What matters is the act of conveying the vision of the photographer to the brain of the viewer. Period.
The ‘photograph’ is just the medium that transports that image. At the end of the day, a photo is a conglomeration of pixels (either printed or glowing) that transmit photons to the human visual system, and ultimately end up in the visual cortex in the back of the human brain. That is where we actually “see”.
Early photography (and motion picture films) were only available in black & white. When color photography first came along, the colors were not ‘natural’. As emulsions improved things got better, but even so there was a marked deviation from ‘natural’ that was actually ‘designed in’ by Kodak and other film manufacturers. The saturation and color mapping of Kodachrome did not match reality, but it did satisfy the public that equated punchy colors with a ‘good color photo’ and made those vacation memories happy ones.. and therefore sold more film. The more subdued, and realistic, Ektachrome came along as professional photographers pushed for choice (and quite frankly an easier and more open developing process – Kodachrome could only be processed by licensed labs and it was notoriously difficult to process well). The down side of early Ektachrome emulsions was the unfortunate instability of the dye layers in color transparency film – leading to rapid fading of both slides and movies.
As one who has worked in film preservation and restoration for decades, it was interesting to note that an early color process (the Technicolor 3-stripe method) that was originally designed just to get vibrant colors on the movie screen in the 1930’s had a resurgence in film preservation. Turned out that so many of the early Ektachrome films from the 1950’s and 1960’s experienced rapid fading that significant restoration efforts were necessary to salvage some important movies. The only way at that time (before economical digital scanning of movies was possible) was to – after restoration of the color negative – scan using the Technicolor process and make 3 separate black & white films that represented the cyan, magenta and yellow dye layers. Then someday in the future the 3 negatives could be optically combined and printed back on to color film for viewing.
There is No Objective Truth in Photography (or Painting, Music…)
All photography is an illusion. Using a lens, a photo-sensitive element of some sort and a box to restrict the image to only the light coming through the lens, a photograph is a rendering of what is before the lens. Nothing more. Distorted and limited by the photographer’s choice of point of view, lens, aperture, shutter speed, film/sensor and so on; the resultant image – if correctly executed, reflects at most the inner vision of the photographer’s mind/perception of the original scene. Every photograph has a story (some more boring than others).
One of the great challenges of photography (and possibly one of the reasons that until quite recently this art form was not taken seriously) is that on first glance many photos appear to be just a ‘copy of reality’ – and therefore contain no inherent artistic value. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just that that ‘art’ hides in plain sight… It is our collective, subjective, and inaccurate view that photographs are ‘truthful’ and accurately represent the reality that was before the lens that is the root of the problem that engendered this post. We naively assume that photos can be trusted, that they show us the only possible view of reality. It’s time to grow up, to accept that photography, just like all other art forms, is a product of the artist, first and foremost.
Even the unassuming mom who is taking snapshots of her kids is making choices – whether she knows it or not – about each of the parameters already discussed. Since most snapshot (or cellphone) cameras have wide angle lenses, the ‘huge nose’ effect of close-up pics of babies and youngsters (that will haunt these innocent children forever on Facebook and Instagram – data never dies…) is just an objective artifact of lens choice and distance to subject. Somewhere along the line our moral compass became out of whack when we started drawing highly artificial lines around ‘acceptable editorial behavior’ and so on. An entirely different discussion – which is worthy of a separate post – can be had in terms of the photographer’s (or publisher’s) intention in sharing an image. If a deliberate attempt to misrepresent the scene, for financial gain, allocation of justice, change in power, etc. is taken, that is an issue. But the same issue exists whether the medium that transports such a distortion is the written word, an audio recording, a painting or a 3D holograph. It is illogical to apply a set of standards or restrictions to one art form and not another, just to attempt to reign in inadvertent or deliberate distortions in a story that may be deduced from the art by an observer.
To use another common example, we have all seen many photos of a full moon rising behind a skyline, trees on a ridge, etc. – typically with a really large moon – and most observers just appreciate the image, the impact, the feeling. Even some rudimentary science, and a bit of experience with photography, reveals that most such images are a composite, with a moon image enlarged and layered in behind the foreground. The moon, is simply never that large, in relation to the rest of the image. In many cases I have seen, the lighting of the rest of the scene clearly shows that the foreground was shot at a different time of night than the moon (a full moon on the horizon only occurs at dusk). I have also seen many full moons in photographs that are at astronomically impossible locations in the sky, given the longitude and latitude of the foreground that is shown in the image.
Why is it that such an esteemed, and talented, photographer as Steve McCurry is chastised for removing some distracting bits of an image – which in no way detracted from the ‘story’ of the image – and yet I dare say that no one in their right mind wold criticize Leonardo da Vinci for including a physically impossible background (the almost mythological mountains and seas) in his rendition of Lisa Gherardini for his painting of “Mona Lisa”? As someone who has worked in the film/video/audio industry for my entire professional life, I can tell you with absolute certainty that no modern audio recording – from Adele to Ziggy Marley – is released that is not ‘digitally altered’ in some fashion. Period. It is just an absolute in today’s production environment to ‘clean up’ every track, every mix, every completed master – removing unwanted echoes, noise, coughs, burps, and other audio equivalents of Mr. Fisch’s plastic bag… and no one, ever, has complained about this or accused the artists of being ‘dishonest’.
This double standard needs to be put to rest permanently. It reflects poorly on those who take this position, demonstrating their lack of technical knowledge and a narrow perception of the art form of photography, and furthermore gives power to those whose only interest is to malign others and detract from the powerful impact that a great image can create. If ignorant observers can really believe that an airplane in an image as depicted is ‘real’ (for the airplane to be of such a size in relation to the tunnel and ladders it would have to be flying at a massively illegal low altitude in that location) then such observers must take responsibility. Does the knowledge that this placement of the plane is ‘not real’ detract from the photo? Does the contraposition of ‘stillness vs movement’ (concrete and steel silo vs rapidly moving aircraft) create a visually stimulating image? Is it important whether that occurred ‘in reality’ or not? Would an observer judge it differently if this was a painting or a sketch instead of a photograph?
I love the art and science of photography. I am daily enamored with the images that talented and creative people all over the world share, whether a mixture of camera originals, composites, pure fiction created in the ‘darkroom’ or some combination of all. This is a wondrous art form, and must be supported at all costs. It’s not easy, it takes dedication, effort, skill, perseverance, money, time and love – just as any art form. I would hope that we could move the conversation to what matters: ‘truth in advertising’. In a photo contest, nothing, repeat nothing, should matter except the image itself. Just like painting, sculpture, music, ceramics, dance, etc. – the observed ‘art’ should be judged only by the merits of the entity itself, without subjective expectations or philosophical distortions. If an image is used to reinforce a particular ‘story’ – whether for ethical, legal or news purposes, then both the words and the images must be authentic. Authentic does not mean ‘un-retouched’, it does mean that there is no ‘black lie’ in what is conveyed.
To summarize, let’s stop believing that photographs are ‘real’ – but let’s start accepting the art, craftsmanship, effort and focus that this medium brings to all of us. Let’s apply a common frame of reference to all forms of art, whether they be painting, writing, photography, music, etc. – terms of authenticity and purpose. Would we chide Escher for attempting to fool us with visual cues of an impossible reality?